Albrecht Dürer did it. Vincent van Gogh did it. Egon Schiele did it. Frida Kahlo did it. And I’m doing it too.
It all started about a year ago when I was digitally experimenting with a photo of, well, myself. Artists tend to be vain people, and I am admittedly no exception to this rule. While I was »playing around with myself« in photoshop and not planning on doing anything specific, I gradually saw it developing into an interpretation of Gustav Klimt’s famous painting ”Judith and Holofernes“ also known as ”Judith I“. As I am named after Yehudis, the original Hebrew version of the historic ”Judith“, I more and more started to understand and feel, how I was putting myself in relation to my own Jewish history.
The creative outcome of this experiment was a digital artwork that I named »Modern-Day Yehudis«. This work was the first in what has since become a cycle called »Modern-Day Jewess«, a series of artworks so far followed by portraits of Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Mirjam, Leah, and Queen Esther.
In all of them, I am using myself as the female model to explore these famous Jewish prophetesses — and explore my own Jewish identity through them. I guess that’s what distinguishes these works from classical self-portraits: rather than confirming my sense of self, I use the works to search and explore the different layers of my identity as a woman and Jewess.
becoming queen esther
In the course of my work on this cycle, I’ve observed that it’s not me choosing which famous ancestor to portray next, but rather them coming to me. It feels as if they mystically address a theme that – in one form or another – connects to me and my life at the time of their creation.
A few days ago I finished my version of Queen Esther, and I have to admit: the work on this portrait was so far the strangest experience of them all for me.
Why would I think of Esther now, I wondered, in September, getting ready for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur? After all, the story of Queen Esther saving the Jewish people from death and destruction in the Persian exile is tied to the festival of Purim, many moons away.
Yet, there she was: in my head and on my computer screen, while I was carefully combining the colors and elements of the final composition. Becoming Esther, the famous queen and wife of King Xerxes I of Persia, felt strange and unreal to me, as it meant moving the furthest away from my regular appearance so far. I was looking at myself and didn’t see me. I was looking at myself covered in the oriental veil and jewelry and felt – guilty. Jewish guilt is popularly known as its own peculiar form of Jewish entertainment, but I really felt I shouldn’t be working on this portrait. Not now. It was Elul, Rosh Hashana was approaching, stop serving your personal vanity, I thought. And yet, I somehow couldn’t put it aside until it was finished. And felt even guiltier.
and i will hide, really hide my face from them …
It wasn’t until I started writing this text that it all became clearer to me. I originally envisioned to write a blog about the history of self-portraits and my works connecting to this tradition, but as it so often happens in the arts, everything takes on a different dynamic at some point and we can only follow where it leads us.
Esther is probably one of the most famous women in Jewish history. The root of the name »Esther« relates to the Hebrew word »hester« for being hidden. When the Jewish orphan Esther was chosen to be queen and marry the evil Achashverosh (Xerxes) she had to reveal and hide her true identity because she had to fear for her safety. She knew that she could only help the Jewish people if her identity as a Jew remained a secret. There are many lessons to be learned from the story of Esther about identity and Jewish unity in a time of threat and danger – lessons of great value, particularly at the beginning of a new year, particularly in the 21st century.
the new rise of an old hate
I am currently in Munich for a few weeks, visiting friends and family. I haven’t been here in a while, and if it wasn’t for the people I love, I feel no more need or desire to come here. The recent developments in Europe and Germany with a new rise of Antisemitism make such visits less and less desirable. Don’t get me wrong, I will always stay European at heart, but it has become almost impossible to consider living there, no matter it’s Germany or anywhere in Europe, at this point. That’s a painful reality. Still, what does Esther have to do with it?
Elul, the month ahead of the New Jewish Year, is a time of reflection and retrospection. This past year has been a very painful and difficult one for the Jewish people. Antisemitism has become part of everyday Jewish life again all over the globe. We’ve mourned several deeply painful losses, from the tragic shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway to the many violent attacks inflicted on Jews throughout Europe. Only a few months ago, the German government’s Antisemitism commissioner has urged Jews in Germany to avoid wearing Kippot in public. For our own sake we are supposed to be hidden and invisible, in the very country that so solemnly likes to invoke its Christian-Jewish heritage and obligation towards Israel, the Jewish people and ”Never again“.
Regular surveys in recent years, conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, revealed that a growing number of the respondents avoid visiting places and wearing symbols that identify them as Jews because they are afraid of being attacked.
The story of Esther took place during the reign of Xerxes in the years 486–465 BCE. While Esther had to put on a veil to hide her identity, Jews around the world are expected to take it off again and exist in hiding to protect themselves and their loved ones. Today is the 13th of September in the year 2019 CE.
Update December 2019: Little did I know that only a few days after this post the tragic attack on a Synagogue in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur was yet to happen as well as yesterday’s shooting at a Kosher Supermarket in New Jersey.
To be continued …
All images © Hidur Design Works